Why We Need Our Dog

We were standing at the edge of the water, the sun splashing itself against the curling waves so that the water itself sparkled. My thirteen year old son, whose freckles reappeared after a few days on the beach and whose blue eyes match the turquoise sea, leaned into me. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Me neither,” I answered with my arm around him.

“It was an awesome week.”

And we took a few last moments watching the sea together.

Two hours later, having packed up and showered, our nine year old and I sat on the Harbour island dock with our bags while my husband went back to get the older boys and lock up the golf cart. Our son wore a Kansas City Chiefs baseball hat and a fluorescent green t-shirt from last summer’s swim team. His red fox neck pillow was wrapped around his neck.

“You guys are so much fun to travel with,” I told him and couldn’t help but kiss him on the nose.

He smiled, “You and Dad are fun to travel with too.”

And when we were all together, having made our connecting flight, but nostalgic for the day we arrived eight days ago, our fourteen year old reminded us that home is not so bad, because…

“I can’t wait to see the puppy.”

The puppy who is no longer a puppy. “Poor puppy,” the boys added and were suddenly ready for vacation’s end.


South Africa: Far from My Kids

I have been away from my three boys for five days now. It is the longest we have been apart, and there are still six days before I see them back home in Colorado.

When three giraffes run alongside our Land Rover, I wish they were here. They would love that. Or the baby baboon riding on its mother’s back. Or the herd of elephants playing in the water. Two tons of animal swimming gracefully, nearly disappearing under the water’s surface. A male supervises the water fight from the land. They would love racing around in the darkness searching for lions while dodging giant spider webs.

We will have to come back one day so they can experience what it feels like to finally discover where the rhino has been hiding for three days.

I hear their voices on the phone. I know my five year old is going to look taller after eleven days. I hear how much my ten year old misses his parents. I wonder if my nine year old is still misbehaving at school. Or if the talk we had before I left was enough.

I tell them about how close we were to the lions, and feel the urge to cry. Is it in the retelling of the drama of that moment? Or that I wish they’d experienced it with me?

The leopard remains in hiding, maybe saving himself for discovery by three boys on our return.

South Africa: The World is Small, and Yet…

On the third day, I slept. But not for long. There are too many “firsts” to experience. And this is a country so complex that I know I cannot ask enough questions to understand it. I will only be here for 11 days.

I am on the African continent for the first time. South Africa. I see the Southern Cross for the first time in the night sky, near Orion’s belt. A baboon crossing the street. Shining a flashlight into the darkness, face to face with a tired giraffe, who rolls her eyes like a teenager before rising out of the grass for a quieter spot. Ducking below the roll-bar on a Land Rover tipping dangerously only feet from a curious male lion. Sitting in a pool with a cold glass of chardonnay, watching a family of warthogs at a watering hole below in the brush. Then a family of moneys. A wildebeest. They seem to have a schedule by species.

We are on safari near Kruger National Park. Driving along the highway from Johannesburg to the Lodge, I feel tricked into thinking South Africa is just like home. The acres of cornfields could be Nebraska. Cows. A McDonalds near the highway. Lays Salt and Vinegar potato chips at the rest stop. Sprite.

And when we ask our driver about life in South Africa, his words could be those of someone in the U.S. He is patriotic. His country is a melting pot of colors and 17 languages. He feels conflicted about Affirmative Action. He talks about failing schools that are overcrowded with too many kids who are not learning to read. He complains about the unions. He worries about the growing gap between the rich and poor. He claims that South Africa’s reputation for crime is overblown. He is concerned about a constant flow of immigrants looking for jobs where the unemployment rate is already nearly 30 percent.

Yet he wouldn’t live anywhere else. He says the people are leaving the horrors of Apartheid behind. It is a beautiful country. There is forgiveness.

But he is too young to remember Apartheid. He is white.

You drive past the townships with closet-size shacks made of scrap metal clustered together in a field of dirt. You hear later about HIV rates of 70 percent, 50 percent of the school children. Many have to choose between food and uniforms, because while the government will waive school fees, it will not cover the cost of required school uniforms.

If I asked the barber braiding hair in the township to describe his life in this country, would he speak of patriotism and the beauty of the countryside? Or the grandmother who opens her home to “29 or 35” children in need of a safe haven? Or the couples who disappear, abandoning their children, when the signs of AIDS first appear because the stigma is still so great? Have they climbed to the top of Table Mountain and seen how the cliffs meet the ocean? Have they witnessed the ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope?

Nearly 20 years after Apartheid, I realize that I was only a few years younger than our driver when the U.S. was at a similar point in its history post-desegregation. And I will never comprehend fully what that time was like in my country. The extreme poverty and contrast in communities here remind me how close they are to their past.

Then as I try to understand something I cannot, because I am only a tourist, a rhino with no horn steps out from the brush.

I am a long way from home.

My First Visit to New Orleans

New Orleans has a mythic, magical reputation that mixes a rich, yet sordid, history with a vibrant culture. It evokes the image of Stanley Kowalski passionately, desperately calling for his wife Stella when she locks him out. And spooky, mausoleum-filled graveyards. And scantily-clad women tossing beads from iron balconies on Bourbon Street where revelers in masks play below. And streetcars. And gray Spanish moss haunting the trees.

Today, New Orleans still echoes of the devastating force of Nature, the Ninth Ward, and images of people young and old climbing out of the second story windows of their flooded homes.

Until last week, I had never been there. It was not, in my mind, a place to bring children. Our boys were not with us.

During the first night, as we walked down Bourbon Street, I was disappointed. I had romanticized the French Quarter, but it was trashy. Neon. A shabby street with a chip on its shoulder. People you typically see only at amusement parks happy at night to walk the streets drinking a flat Big Ass Beer through a straw.

It wasn’t until morning that I began to love the city. With the sun shining, the French Quarter came to life. Wonderful antique boutiques and hat shops. Restaurants with beautiful garden patios. Talented musicians playing their trumpets, trombones, drums and guitars in the street to crowds that included children and old men.

I ate shrimp at every meal. I drank good wine. I soaked up the sunshine.

The second night in the city, we discovered the small, crowded music venues on Frenchman’s Street: Snug Harbor, the Spotted Cat. As one band packed up instruments and divided their tips, we moved to the next bar where a second or third band was just beginning to play.

We took a private driving tour of the city and learned about its many neighborhoods and stories buried in the cemetery mausoleums. There was the second wife shunned by society whose towering burial monument says “I am here. We learned facts that those in the car had never heard before. Facts we Googled afterward to make sure were true. Facts that we thought might be fiction about free Negroes with slave quarters, some who owned more than 100 slaves themselves.

New Orleans does have its secrets and sad stories.

But I thought, as we investigated little pieces of history, that my boys would enjoy this learning adventure.

We went on swamp tour that was tremendously fun. The boys would have loved speeding along the top of the water, watching raccoons and six-foot alligators alike munch on marshmallows, spotting turtles sunning themselves on logs.

We went to the World War II Museum, which plans to triple in size in the next few years with the addition of an aircraft wing. It is a gorgeous museum, and the many two-minute oral histories throughout give it an emotional power that gives you a better understanding of what life was like for soldiers, women, and African-Americans before the war started… then during and after. It gives you a greater appreciation of Franklin Roosevelt and his ability to build a military that was only 18th in the world at the start of the world. I didn’t know that. The immense strength of people who came together with a single goal to win, to defend what they had even though it was not much coming out of the Great Depression.

Had my children come on the trip, I could imagine my ten year old listening to the oral histories and asking questions over the next few weeks. He also would have loved the antique weaponry and coin shop in the French Quarter with its many rifles, swords and centuries-old coins. He would have devoured the beignets at Café du Monde… as we did before wandering through the French Market and past the cathedral and Jackson Square.

The Roosevelt Hotel where we stayed had a rooftop pool with a bar. I longed to lounge the day away with a good book soaking in the sun before returning home where the boys’ homework piled up and it was threatening snow before Halloween. But New Orleans would not release me. Too much to do. Too much to see and learn under the living oaks that have witnessed much. Too much shrimp to eat and wine to drink and music.

Carhenge: Dad’s Favorite Detour

Next time you are road-tripping across America, and someone in your caravan suggests making a detour on the way home, think twice before saying yes.

You won’t have time to research the new stop, so make sure that all riders do not fall under the spell of the driver with the “great” idea.

Especially if that driver gets really excited about a place called CARHENGE.

CARHENGE is located in Alliance, Nebraska. Alliance is surrounded by farms and what looks like a closed Cabela’s factory, though it still has a decrepit “Hiring” sign out at front. A railroad track cuts through, and even the houses look depressed.

And CARHENGE is just what you’d expect. Someone made a model of the historic, somewhat miraculously still standing Stonehenge out of old automobiles. Then they painted them all beige. Sunflowers grow wildly between them, as they do along the highway they brings you to Alliance.

There is a small shop at the top of the parking lot.

My four year old peed on CARHENGE. My eight and nine year old boys looked at their father in disbelief, “We drove all that way for this?!” And “this is lame!”

He took photos, and we took photos of him smiling, arms open with the excitement that is…not… CARHENGE.

But when we piled back in the car after only a few minutes, we took a vote to see who thought it was the best part of our trip. My husband raised his hand like a little kid. And I laughed so hard, tears poured down my face. I will remember that detour with a smile for a very long time.

A Family Trip Across South Dakota

During Labor Day weekend, we took a road trip to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota — a caravan of two minivans, two five-person families, two Star Wars videos and a cooler full of snacks.

The trip fell right in the middle of the Republican and Democratic conventions, and as always happens during election time, I think in speeches. I start crafting the speech I would write for this politician or that one. I edit the ones the candidates give – he should have said this, or she didn’t say enough of that, or that made him look like an idiot.

So as we drove through South Dakota and hit several national parks and memorials, I imagined the speech I would write for someone seeking votes there. And it was all about how South Dakota’s history is a model for what it means to be a family, to stick by the ones you love, to follow in their footsteps, to carry on against the odds in the name of… family.

First, as we drove across miles and miles of brown prairie, spotted only occasionally by a small house, a barn and some old tractors, I thought about the approaching winter. I thought about the families who live in those houses and how they must not get out much. I thought about how hard winters must be on them. And then I wondered if anyone new ever moves in. Or are these huge ranches that feel like they are alone on earth stuck in the same family for generations? Do they change hands, or is there some familial understanding that the son or daughter continues to work the land of his or her parents and grandparents? It’s a different life from the lives and expectations of most of us these days – one driven by family ties.

And then I imagined the homesteaders traveling for miles with their families in search of land on which to build a home. They braved the brutal summers and bitter winters. They knew they might encounter those (beast or person) who would do them harm. They knew they might run out of food. But in many cases, a family came along in support of one person’s dream of owning a piece of land. And they battled the elements with the dreamer. Those who crossed South Dakota were certainly tested. Many starved. Many must have turned back or kept moving west.

The Lakota people who lived and hunted in South Dakota also battled a harsh reality in the plains. How they survived the winters, I cannot imagine. They must have been a hardy, resourceful people. And they must have depended on the strength and spirit of their families for survival.

South Dakota’s more recent history continues the story of familial ties. The creation of both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial were possible because sons and daughters followed in their sculptor-father’s footsteps, taking on the work their parents dedicated their lives to. A father-son team led the work on Mount Rushmore, and the wife and children of a sculptor are continuing to raise money and work on Crazy Horse.

The success of Wall Drug, the biggest drugstore in America, is another tale about a family finding home on the South Dakota plains. As the story goes, a young couple, preparing for the birth of their first child, wanted to open a pharmacy. They hoped to purchase one in a small town with a Catholic church. It was 1931, and when they found a pharmacy in Wall, the entire town was living in poverty, unable to recover from the dual hit of drought and the Great Depression. The baby was born, and a father worried that his young wife had given up her dreams of teaching for a lost cause in Wall. During the first weeks there, no one bought a thing. He was sure they were ruined.

But family sticks together in South Dakota. And his wife came up with an idea. Travelers along the barren, lonely roads of that state just had to be thirsty. And so she set her husband and a neighbor high school student to work making large posters offering free ice water. They put the posters up, and before the end of the day, their pharmacy was full. Thirsty travelers drank the water and then bought their supplies. More than eighty years later, Wall Drug is the biggest pharmacy in the country. The posters, now billboards, line the highways of South Dakota promising free ice water, five cent cups of coffee, homemade ice cream and pie. And it is still a family business.

Driving through South Dakota with my family, I kept thinking there is a lesson here in the fields that I should pass along to my boys. Stick together. Some winters of life will be hard. You will face challenges. You may feel like the road to your dreams is long. But you have family. And with your family, you can achieve great things. Two hundred years ago, you could build a life on the frontier. In 1931, you could build a lasting business out of a Great Depression. Today, you can honor a Lakota hero in the side of a mountain. With family.

I watched another night of politics last night, and I kept thinking that every story of success we hear from either political party is one of a strong family. Families making sacrifices for each other. Families working harder for each other. Families sticking together when times get tough. Families driven only by their dreams for their children.

Is there a better story to be told? Is there a more valuable lesson those politicians can teach us? The Republicans aren’t saying, “if you go it alone, and don’t worry about anyone but yourself, you can be successful”, and the Democrats aren’t saying “government handouts can make you successful.”  They are both up at the podium telling the story of the family who made them strong, the mother who worked harder, the grandfather who dug deeper, the father who showed them the way, the brother or sister or wife or husband who told them to go for it.  Every time they speak from either party’s podium, it is the strength of family that leads to success.  That is the American story.

So the speech will always really be about the spirit of South Dakota.

That is what I took home from my Labor Day road trip in a caravan of two minivans, two five-person families, two Star Wars videos and a cooler full of snacks.